The words echoed down the Rose Garden’s access tunnel, bouncing between concrete walls.
“Where’s Joey? Where’s Joey?”
LeBron James walked past the throng of fans who stood hoping for an autograph. The Miami Heat had blown a 13-point halftime lead in a 92-90 loss to the Portland Trailblazers on Jan. 10. But something else was on James’ mind.
“I have to meet Joey,” he said.
James saw Joey Cawyer, a 23-year-old from Cheney, in his wheelchair. The basketball superstar bent down and gave him a hug. He turned to Cawyer’s mother and told her to stay strong.
Two weeks later, Cawyer was gone.
Longtime LeBron James fan
Drew Peterson, Caton Oyolokor and Thang Nguyen grew up with Joey Cawyer. In Cheney, they spent hours arguing a simple question: LeBron or Kobe?
For Cawyer, the answer was easy: LeBron.
“He liked the fact that LeBron was raised by a single mom because Joey was raised by me – a single mom,” Cindy Cawyer-Anderson said.
In April 2010, doctors told Cawyer he had stage 4 brain cancer. The malignant tumor would launch an assault on his surrounding brain tissue. Doctors said the cancer would kill the former soccer player within a year.
Cawyer refused to slow down. He continued to play in Spokane’s annual 3-on-3 Hoopfest with his best friends despite the grim prognosis. Cindy Cawyer-Anderson said he would begin counting down to next year’s event the day after his team was eliminated.
As the cancer progressed – and James established himself as one of the most dominating players in NBA history – Cawyer became a bigger fan.
“You could tell when he was diagnosed, his passion for LeBron and basketball became so much more,” said Lindsey Peterson, a longtime friend. “All he cared about was LeBron.”
Drew Peterson understands the power of social media. An aspiring sportswriter at Washington State University, he wanted to fulfill one last wish for a dying friend. Lindsey Peterson posted a Facebook message to a page representing James, asking the NBA most valuable player to meet Cawyer when the Heat played the Trailblazers.
Drew Peterson had another idea: Twitter.
“Everybody #MeetJoey,” Drew Peterson said of the hashtag they used. “We just got a few of our Facebook friends involved and then it took off.”
College basketball personality Dick Vitale, UFC fighters, Seattle Seahawk safety Jeron Johnson and Gonzaga basketball players Kevin Pangos and Sam Dower saw the hashtag movement and retweeted it within days.
People from around the country reached out, sending direct messages through social media offering sympathy.
“We were getting 800 retweets and thousands of followers,” Lindsey Peterson said.
One person in Alaska: “ ‘Oh, I’m up in Alaska and I hope this #MeetJoey thing works out,’ ” Peterson said. “This other guy is like, ‘Oh, I’m down in Florida and I’ve never met Joey, but I’ve been retweeting.’ ”
James alerted via Twitter
Cawyer-Anderson knew her oldest son had only a few days left to live. The cancer was progressing. He rarely spoke.
Cawyer-Anderson helped plan the trip to the Trailblazers game knowing Joey would soon have to enter hospice care. There was no guarantee he would get to meet his idol.
Drew Peterson said he and Cawyer-Anderson believed Joey Cawyer was hanging on to make the trip to meet James.
In reality, James had no idea who Joey was as he ate breakfast the morning of Jan. 10.
Enter Francine Hansen, ex-wife of billionaire hedge-fund manager Chris Hansen. The latter agreed in January to purchase the Sacramento Kings with the hope of moving the team to Seattle. Francine Hansen knew the right people within the Trailblazers organization.
After being told of Cawyer’s condition, she contacted Nguyen through Twitter a few days before the game.
“She has connections around the whole industry sportswise,” Nguyen said. “She got in contact with the people who knew LeBron and she told them to have him check his Twitter.
“He checked it at breakfast.”
Hansen arranged tickets for the group as well as postgame access passes.
“You could tell that Joey wasn’t really there those last few days,” Drew Peterson said. “He wasn’t mentally there, but you could tell when LeBron came over, he knew who he was and was just kind of star-struck.”
As James and Heat teammates Dwayne Wade and Ray Allen surrounded him, Cawyer found his voice once more.
“His eyes were just like, ‘I can’t believe this is happening,’ ” Cawyer-Anderson said. “He smiled and he talked to LeBron. He hadn’t hardly been saying much of anything.”
‘The last good thing’
Two weeks later, Joey Cawyer lay in bed at his Cheney home with a collection of family and friends by his side. The 32 months of radiation, chemotherapy and countless doctor visits were over.
“I was just sitting there literally waiting for my best friend to take his last breath,” Drew Peterson said. “I was just thinking of all the times we had together and how I would never be able to talk to or hang out with him again.”
The last time Joey spoke, he told his mom he loved her.
He knew the cancer won.
Cawyer died Jan. 24.
“It was all so emotionally overwhelming and surreal,” Peterson said. “It just felt like a nightmare that I was about to wake up from. It still does.”
Last month, at a senior center in north Spokane, the friends gathered again to honor Joey’s life.
“He loved his friends as close as anybody could love family,” his mother said.
It was those friends who helped give Joey and his mom one final gift.
“It was honestly the last good thing that happened in his life,” Cawyer-Anderson said.
Inside the room hung Joey Cawyer’s letterman jacket, twirling slowly from a string. Not far beneath it was a black-and-red Miami Heat jersey.
The number on the back read “6.”
The name said “James.”